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Delhi's beguiling bazaars

Can cows be claustrophobic? Not if they live in India, not if they dwell in Delhi and not if they wander Chandni Chowk.

Chandni Chowk is Delhi's historic, if not hyperactive, heartland _ a bumper-to-bumper marketplace of exhaust-spewing motorcycle rickshaws and mopeds zipping around like angry wasps. It's the labyrinth of let's-make-a-deal merchants, always smiling as they peer from shop doors festooned with garlands of marigolds.

Frenzy gives way to momentary calm, however, when a cream-colored "sacred cow" enters Chandni Chowk's cramped back-alley byways, spies a snippet of shade and plops down like a load of laundry. Bicyclists dismount and maneuver around the impromptu roadblock, strollers sidestep horns and hoofs, handcarts laden with fruits and vegetables queue up to make their passage. No one seems perturbed, least of all the cow.

Patience truly becomes a virtue in Delhi, not only for its 9-million inhabitants, but also for the estimated 1-million foreign tourists who annually descend upon India's capital in search of clamor and color.

Visitors easily encounter both by plunging into the thick of Delhi's numerous markets. Goods from across India flow in like a mercantile monsoon. Buyers and sellers find shopping Nirvana, for Delhi is the bazaar of all bazaars.

It's also more than just a bit bizarre. Cows, snake charmers, trained monkeys and trumpeting elephants don't enliven the polished aisles of my mall back home, but in Delhi, all of this awaits.

Shopping expeditions begin at the currency exchange, where the U.S. dollar struts like a champ. The greenback may be taking a drubbing from the yen and Deutschemark, but it holds better than a 30-1 margin over the rupee. This exchange rate, coupled with India's inexpensive prices, can make even the most frugal traveler feel like a maharaja of the market.

Ah, but where to relinquish those bundles of rupees?

Delhi is divided into two parts, old and new. Old Delhi served as Muslim India's capital between the 12th and 19th centuries. Shah Jahan, the 17th-century ruler who built the Taj Mahal, graced the city with the mighty Red Fort and the Jami Masjid, lndia's largest mosque.

The old city's bazaars recall earlier days with commotion-filled lanes jammed with open-air stalls redolent with exotic spices, incense and humanity. Choose Chandni Chowk for its side-street markets, each specializing in a commodity: silver jewelry in Dariba Kalan, beads in the Kinari Bazaar, perfume in Cariba Kalan.

Around the Jami Masjid runs the Meena Bazaar, with a distinctive Islamic flavor, especially crowded on Sundays with throngs in search of goods ranging from bolts of cotton to caged chickens.

New Delhi, created by the British Raj as the imperial capital of their colony, is far more orderly: wide roads, spacious parks and colonial mansions. Connaught Place is the commercial hub, formed in a great circle from which roads radiate like wheel spokes. Hundreds of shops displaying everything from books to brassware crouch beneath the plaza's colonnaded arches.

Topping the list of stops are the government-run shopping enclaves: the Central Cottage Industries Emporium on Janpath Road and, nearby, the individual emporiums for each of India's states and union territories.

The chief benefit of these places is that they represent the best of Indian goods and handicrafts, all under one roof. Whether bronzes of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh, colorful miniature paintings, silk saris as sheer as last year's memories, finely woven carpets, sandalwood carvings smooth as flower petals or inlaid marble boxes, it's here.

Quality is high, credit cards are accepted, shipping can be arranged and prices are fixed.

These advantages aside, the emporiums are a timid shopping experience by Indian standards. The true art of buying and selling occurs in the streets, where shoppers contend with hard bargaining.

Haggling over the price of nearly everything, except food, is expected. "Unless you bargain you'll be cheated left, right and center," explained one British expatriate to me. "When dealers see foreigners, they hike the price, so start your offer low _ and be prepared to walk away."

If you go

The most extensive air schedules to Delhi are offered by Air India with service from New York's JFK Airport. Call (212) 751-6200 or a travel agent for more information. Delhi offers several Western-style hotels.

Delhi's markets are not only numerous, they are also spread over the entire city. A minimum of three days is required to examine the highlights of the shopping extravaganza. Getting to and from the bazaars is best done by taxi or auto rickshaw, both of which are inexpensive; a 10-mile jaunt, which can take upward of an hour in Delhi's traffic, will cost less than $3.

The best buys run the gamut from home furnishings to ready-to-wear. Put the following items at the top of your list: handwoven carpets, bronze figurines of Hindu deities, carved wooden furniture, images of animals crafted from rosewood, walnut or sandalwood, papier-mache boxes and masks, miniature paintings, leatherwork made from buffalo or camel, gold jewelry and beaded necklaces, and glazed pottery.

India also produces more than 300 varieties of silk weaves, from brocade to chiffon, as well as fine homespun cotton.

Unless you're shopping exclusively in department stores or the government-run shops, most transactions will be in cash, that is, rupees. Although the larger stores accept all major credit cards, some will add a 5 percent to 7 percent service charge.

Here's a sampling of Delhi's shopping areas:

Chandni Chowk is in Old Delhi, just west of the Red Fort, and is open every day except Sunday. The area's side streets are filled with special bazaars dedicated to a particular commodity. It's primarily known as a wholesaler's area, where merchants buy in bulk.

The Meena Bazaar is in Old Delhi, at the base of the Jami Masjid, and is open every day. Clothes, house goods and food items are the specialties. In the same area are several smaller bazaars such as the Kalan Mahal, where brass polishers gather, and at the backside base of the Red Fort, the Chor Bazaar, sometimes noted as the "thieves market" for its wide range of secondhand goods.

The Central Cottage Industries Emporium is in New Delhi on Janpath Road, near Connaught Place. It is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day except Sunday and major holidays (Jan. 26, Aug. 15 and Oct. 2). Goods from across India are displayed on six floors; the selection is broad. For better choices of indigenous arts and handicrafts, head to the state emporiums on Baba Kharak Singh Marg (Radial Road 2), two streets west of the Central Emporium.

The Crafts Museum is in New Delhi, at the Pragati Maidan Exhibition Grounds on Mathura Road. It is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day except Sunday and major holidays. Besides featuring displays of Indian crafts in wood, metal and textiles, a portion of the museum grounds is dedicated to craftspeople who demonstrate their trade and sell their work.

For more information about Delhi, contact the India Tourist Office, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10112; call (212) 586-4901.

Dan Klinglesmith is a freelance writer who lives in Denver.